While the West moves to re-isolate Myanmar after a short period of re-engagement, neighboring India is taking a more realpolitik approach to reports of massive rights abuses by the nation’s security forces.
Indeed, India is doing its utmost to improve relations while the United States and European Union impose new sanctions aimed specifically at Myanmar’s military, including top soldiers involved in the abuses.
It is by now evident that Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim Rohingya population and crackdown on the media — major concerns in the West — will be subordinated to New Delhi’s broader policy aims for Myanmar and the wider region.
There are several intertwined reasons for India’s pragmatic approach. First, India’s eastern neighbor is a vital link in its commercially driven “Act East” policy, a gambit aimed at expanding trade and investment through better linkages with Southeast Asia’s booming economies.
India’s fast-expanding economy needs fuel to grow, and New Delhi has shown strong interest in importing oil and gas from Myanmar. Meanwhile, long-decrepit roads to the Myanmar border are being upgraded to facilitate faster bilateral trade.
An agreement signed in May paved the way for entry-exit points at the border towns of Moreh in India and Tamu in Myanmar, as well as at the Rihkhawdar-Zowkhawtar at the border between India’s Mizoram and Myanmar’s Chin state.
Second, India has stayed fully engaged with Naypyidaw to prevent China from stealing a march in yet another neighboring country after Beijing has made strong advances in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives, including through its global infrastructure-building program.
Just as significantly, New Delhi’s security planners want to ensure that Assamese, Naga and Manipuri ethnic insurgents based in remote areas of northwestern Myanmar are deprived of their sanctuaries.
Insurgents often launch lethal raids into India’s northeast from those camps and then retreat across the border into Myanmar, beyond the reach of the Indian army.
In June 2015, India’s security authorities ran out of patience and sent commandoes across the border to attack rebel camps. Myanmar authorities denied any such attack took place and have always claimed their are no rebel bases on their territory.
Still, the insurgent issue created new headlines in the Indian media when Myanmar’s Deputy Home Minister Major General Aung Thu met with India’s Home Secretary Rajiv Gauba in New Delhi in late October.
Reports said the two senior officials held talks on a range of issues, with the local The Sentinel newspaper proclaiming in a headline that “India, Myanmar to jointly strike against Northeast rebels.”
The Business Standard, meanwhile, announced that “India, Myanmar agree to act against insurgent groups operating within their territories.” LiveMint, an Indian news website, reported that India and Myanmar are going to “draw up [a] counter-insurgency cooperation plan.”
If all true, the bilateral meeting would have represented a major breakthrough in security cooperation between India and Myanmar.
Ethnic insurgents opposed to New Delhi’s rule have maintained cross-border sanctuaries in Myanmar since the late 1960s, and India has tried as long to persuade the Myanmar army to take action against them – preferably through the kind of joint operations that The Sentinel mentioned in its commentary.
Despite the sensational headlines, nothing of the sort was agreed upon during Aung Thu’s visit. Myanmar and India only agreed to work together to prevent smuggling of wildlife and narcotics, and vaguely increase “security cooperation” along their common border, which is nothing new.
Indeed, any joint counterinsurgency operation by Indian and Myanmar militaries would be impossible under Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, which clearly states that “no foreign troops shall be permitted to be deployed in the territory of the Union.”
It is widely known that the main bases of India’s northeastern rebels are located in and around Taga north of Singkaling Hkamti — miles away from the Indian border and at least a week’s trek over mountainous terrain — where they appear to have a cozy relationship with nearby Myanmar army camps.
Naga rebel leaders from the Indian side are known to have invested in gold mining and other lucrative business ventures in Myanmar’s upper Sagaing Region, where they are based.
Assamese and Manipuri rebels are able to move more or less freely from the Taga camps across northern Myanmar to Ruili in China’s southern Yunnan province, where they buy military supplies and other necessities.
The strategic reality is that Myanmar’s army is now fully occupied with fighting its own domestic insurgencies in Kachin and Shan states and cannot be bothered with the presence of rebel groups from India’s northeast who are actually good for the region’s local economies.
It is also now apparent that India’s “Act East” policy, previously known as “Look East” until rechristened and ramped up in 2014 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is focused in part on stabilizing its long volatile eastern border.
Still, India is lagging far behind China in terms of accessing Myanmar’s markets and resources. Bilateral trade between China and Myanmar amounted to nearly US$6 billion in fiscal 2016-2017 and US$7.42 billion in the first eight months of 2017-2018.
China has built new dual-carriage motorways connecting Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, with Ruili and other towns on the Myanmar border.
China has also agreed to build a railway from Muse to Mandalay on the Myanmar side, which eventually will link up with a proposed railroad down to Myanmar’s port town of Kyaukpyu on the Bay of Bengal, giving China strategic access to the Indian Ocean.
China’s fast-growing trade with Myanmar is also spilling over to northeastern India. Chinese-produced electronics, clothes, bags, household utensils and other cheap manufactures are transported across Myanmar and can be found in abundance in northeast Indian market places.
By comparison, annual trade between India and Myanmar is only around US$2 billion, and the roads from the Indian side to the Myanmar border are still rough and nowhere near of the standard and quality of the infrastructure in China’s southern Yunnan province that borders on Myanmar.
But Modi wants to change all that. In September 2017, he visited Myanmar just weeks after several hundred thousand Rohingya had been driven across Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh, causing an outcry in the West.
In July that same year, India rolled out the red carpet for Myanmar’s military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who paid an eight-day visit to the country. Min Aung Hlaing now stands accused of crimes against humanity and even potentially genocide for the “clearance operations” he commanded against the Rohingya.
India’s media got it right that time by reporting that India was ready to ramp up military supplies to Myanmar “to counter Chinese strategic inroads into the country,” as The Times of India reported on July 8. China has been a major arms supplier to the Myanmar military and India apparently aims to provide it with a competing source of hardware.
Building on the trend, Myanmar’s state counselor and nominal head of government Aung San Suu Kyi paid a visit to India in January. Shunned by the West, Suu Kyi has moved closer to China, Japan and Myanmar’s partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
However, it is Suu Kyi’s newfound friendship with China that has likely prompted India to cultivate stronger relations with the now embattled leader.
While any joint action against the insurgents from India’s northeast encamped on Myanmar territory may be a pipe dream, and bilateral trade has a long way to go before it catches up with the fast flows across the Sino-Myanmar border, India’s objectives are clear.
Concerns about Chinese expansion rather than human rights or the plight of the Rohingya is clearly the overriding impetus behind Modi’s “Act East” policy towards Myanmar. Indeed, with the US and EU replacing its engagement overtures with new sanctions, an East-West divide is emerging on how to respond to Myanmar’s latest round of rights abuses.
Japan’s Myanmar ambassador, Ichiro Maruyama, said in an October 19 interview with The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar website, that “Japan is completely opposed to efforts by some countries to impose trade sanctions against Myanmar over the Rohingya issue.”
Although Maruyama did not say it, it is plausible to assume — given Tokyo’s policy of providing an alternative to China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative and a recent warming trend in their bilateral relations— that he shares India’s view that it is more important to counter Beijing’s rising clout in Myanmar.